Tag Archives: book reviews

The Priory of the Orange Tree

Epic fantasy novel about intrigue, warriors and dragons

This was the next set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and I decided to tackle it straightaway during my long flight to Europe. I bought an eBook, but the cover of the hardcopy is exquisite. So if you don’t mind deadlifting every time you turn a page (it is an enormous book), but want to buy a copy, consider the a hardcopy.

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One of our members’ beautiful table setting

“The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon is an epic fantasy novel about a world split between the East and the West. In the East, where dragons are revered and wise creatures of the sea, a young girl called Tané is training to be a dragonrider. On the eve before her studies and abilities are put to the test, she discovers something forbidden and is forced to choose between herself and the law. In the West, where dragons are firebreathing wyrms who bring disease and destruction, another young woman called Ead is rising through the ranks at court in the land of Inys. Charged with protecting the devout and imperious Queen Sabran, Ead keeps her identity and her skills a secret. However, as Ead grows closer to Sabran, and attacks by assassins increase in number and ferocity, the secrets become harder to keep. Meanwhile, there is one secret that cannot be ignored: the impending return of the Nameless One.

There were lots of things that were great about this book. Ead was an incredibly enjoyable character and I loved her storyline, her character growth, her history and her abilities. I think it was pretty obvious that Shannon did too, because Ead’s story does dominate the book. I really liked the diversity of relationships, and I absolutely adored Tané’s journey towards being a dragonrider. Shannon’s writing was strong, and her worldbuilding was a creative spin on traditional dragon myths around the world. I thought the religion in Inys built around virtues and a creation story that are interpreted elsewhere in other countries was an insightful look at how Christianity has evolved and changed.

I hate to say it, because it’s a familiar gripe of mine with fantasy novels, but this book was too long. I reached the end of my patience with this book at about page 600 of its 800-odd pages. As much as I like Ead, she really did overshadow the rest of the story, and her adventures with Sabran and Inys felt much more filled-out than Tané’s journey. This may have reflected Shannon’s confidence with the subject-matter, as Tané’s part of the world was clearly modelled on countries in East Asia, whereas Ead’s story was inspired by Western European culture. In comparison, Tané’s plot felt like a very rushed deus ex machina, and across the board I felt like Shannon leaned heavily on determinism and the repeating of historical events rather than interesting moral dilemmas, ingenuity or an extremely well-thought-out plan.

I have nothing to say about young Lord Loth’s point of view chapters, they were the most dull and left almost no impression on me at all. Niclays on the other hand actively annoyed me, and his role in the books was baffling all the way up to the climax (which, after an inordinate amount of foreshadowing, was over in two chapters). He was one of the few morally ambiguous characters, but with not nearly the subtlety of Kalyba who was far more interesting. I legitimately could not understand why Laya stuck by him throughout the end. His motivations (greed and a lost lover) just did not justify his choices whatsoever, and he wasn’t much of a counterweight for either Ead or Tané, even tempered by Loth’s banal chapters. Considering he only seemed to exist to bridge the gap between East and West, I honestly would have axed Niclays altogether and invested that time into Tané’s origin story which was itself very flimsy. I also wish that Shannon had explored her fascinating giant trees a little more. Instead of developing lore, legend and how these ancient lifeforms influenced the events unfolding today, they end up being little more than plot points and I felt that the opportunity was wasted.

A book with plenty of highlights that could have used some firm culling (of Niclays).

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Red Sister

Fantasy novel about assassin nuns

This was a set book for the feminist fantasy book club I am in, and broke the trend a little by being written by a man. I have to say, it wasn’t a particularly enticing cover, and it was subject to significant ridicule before we even had the meeting. I mean, it really is so bad, I’m tempted to start a new category on my blog for ugly book covers. Needless to say, my expectations were not high when I bought it for my Kobo.

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Contender for the worst book cover ever? 

“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence is a fantasy (and kind of science fiction) novel about a girl called Nona who is taken from her home, placed on a cart with other children and taken to a city to be sold. The children are inspected for physical signs for their potential to have the traits of each of the original tribes: hunska, marjal, quantal and gerant. Her dark eyes, dark hair and incredible reflexes suggest hunska blood, and Nona is sold to a fight hall. However, after a violent incident, Nona is sentenced to death and is rescued at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the convent Sweet Mercy. Nona is enrolled to become a novice and train to become an assassin. Far behind her peers in her literacy and social skills, and with her past threatening to catch up with her, Nona must learn to walk the path before it is too late.

 

This is a fast-paced, immersive read that mixes elements of fantasy, science fiction and your classic, young adult magic school. I really enjoyed the world-building in this book, and the concept of a world completely frozen except for a thin strip along the equator kept warm by a mysterious red moon. The idea of a planet long ago settled by humans who have made it their own and who have special abilities is one that I have read in Anne McCaffrey, C J Cherryh and even Patrick Ness‘ books – and it is a premise that I simply never get tired of. Lawrence is a strong writer who is able to explain some of his complicated magical concepts, and allude to technology that, while the characters don’t understand, the reader recognises, in a clear way. I also liked how much uncomplicated queer content there was in this book, and Lawrence’s handling of relationships.

I think the thing I struggled with was the plot itself. The timeline was a little all over the place, sometimes doubling back, sometimes skipping ahead years at a time. While the theme of “Nona is under threat” was constant, the nature and source of that threat was in constant flux. I felt like the trial at Sweet Mercy was confusing and a little pointless, with Abbess Glass as opaque, unpredictable and infuriating as Dumbledore. The book also seemed divided in two with the demons from Nona’s past forgotten, and a new threat to the mysterious shipheart introduced very late in the story. I think all the elements were there, but they just felt like they needed a little reshuffling or something. Honestly, I just wanted to know more about the original tribes and the red moon, and less about who was trying to attack Nona at any given second for no discernible reason.

This was a very easy book to read, and there were plenty of things I liked about it, but I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll read the second book in the series.

 

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Bluethroat Morning

Mystery novel about a troubled author

Content warning: suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Bluethroat Morning” by Jacqui Lofthouse is a mystery novel about a retiring schoolteacher called Harry Bliss who, six years on, is still mourning the death of his wife Alison. Haunted by her lingering fame as a model, as well as her suicide in a small Norfolk village while working on her new book, Harry is unable to face learning what happened to his wife. When he meets Helen, he is encouraged to visit the village and retrace Alison’s steps to try to understand her, and ultimately himself.

This is a quietly compelling book that explores a multitude of issues ranging from grief, fame, success, marriage, family, depression and what it means to be a woman. Lofthouse has a classic, almost gothic style of writing and juxtaposes the warmth of beauty and life against the cold, bleak backdrop of the Norfolk coastal village. I thought that the first half of the book was particularly strong, and I particularly enjoyed Lofthouse’s exploration of ethical boundaries and forbidden love. I also liked how Alison was portrayed as both otherworldly and human. I also liked that Harry’s indifference was examined as both a strength in his relationship with Alison as well as a weakness. By the end of the book, there was still an intriguing air of mystery around Alison, her life and her motives.

While I understand that the structure of the novel is sort of a quintessential tragedy, the action falling from the climax to the dénouement, I did find the second half of the book to be a little less gripping that the first half. While I understand that there is never a satisfactory resolution when someone has taken their own life, I did feel that some of the elements of the plot were at times a little difficult to connect with. I thought Harry was an interesting choice for a point of view character, and I think I would have liked to have seen a little more of some other perspectives.

A thoughtful and timeless book that explores familiar themes in a fresh way.

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The Water Will Come

Non-fiction book about the impact of ocean levels rising

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World” by Jeff Goodell is a non-fiction book about various coastal cities and towns and the impact he predicts rising sea levels will have. Goodell has a particular interest in property, and a lot of his research, analysis and interviews centre on wealthy investors, politicians and property-owners. Goodell visits a number of places around the world to explore how rising sea levels are already impacting the enormous number of people who live on the coast.

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When I read the opening chapter of this book, I thought it was a dystopian novel about a world underwater. However, Goodell only writes the first chapter about that, and the rest of the book is a non-fiction account of high profile interviews primarily about housing. Unfortunately, as a narrative, this book was not particularly compelling. This book is very America-focused, and Goodell spent two chapters talking about Miami and another talking about Alaska. Yes, he did write a bit about Nigeria and the Marshall Islands but this is primarily a Western-centric book about an issue that will disproportionately affect non-Western countries. Island nations like Indonesia, the Maldives and the many Pacific Island countries were just throwaway lines while the reader was left instead to sympathise with the fact that the insanely lucrative practice of flipping houses in Florida may not always be so lucrative.

I didn’t particularly care for the way that Goodell wrote about people of colour either. He uses colonial and outdated terminology, and refers to the “dying languages of Australian aborigines”, “a nearly extinct Aboriginal language” and the Calusa people as being “wiped out”. Even the title of the book is divisive, indicating that Goodell is only interested in the “civilized world”.

A rather one-dimensional take on a global environmental issue, I really wish it had been a dystopian novel. Perhaps a good companion book for “The Mosquito“?

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

The Mosquito

History of the impact of mosquito-borne disease on war

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

“The Mosquito: A human history of our deadliest predator” by Timothy C. Winegard is a non-fiction history of the influence mosquitoes and the diseases that they carry have had on humanity. The book encompasses ancient and modern history, and explores the devastating impact of diseases such as malaria on pivotal historical moments. To make sure you don’t think it’s a book about something else (like I did), this is at heart a military history.

I was really excited to read this book, and I loved the opening. Winegard connects with the reader through the universal experience of being annoyed with a mosquito, and provides a play by play of just exactly how the mosquito’s bite is so irritating. Winegard is certainly very knowledgeable about history, especially military history, and provides a thorough overview of some of the most well-discussed parts of Western history.

Although Winegard’s enthusiasm doesn’t wane as the book progresses, mine certainly did. I was expecting a lot more social and scientific history, and was hoping to read how mosquitoes had shaped our culture and progress. Every time Winegard touched on an area of scientific significance like the decision not to drain the swamps outside Rome until a ridiculously late time and how the mystery of mosquito-borne disease was finally solved, he glossed over the detail. Perhaps it was a question of confidence in the subject-matter, but I really wanted to know how these brilliant scientific minds figured out mosquitoes were the vector for malaria! I reread over that part thinking I’d missed something, but no – it just wasn’t of as much significance to Winegard, who was far more interested in how casualties from disease influenced the outcome of particular wars.

There were also some questionable and likely controversial parts in the book. Probably the most striking was the suggestion that the reason (or at least part of the reason) that African people were sold into slavery was because of genetic blood disorders like sickle cell disease made them more robust against malaria and therefore better workers in the Americas. I think that this would likely not stand up to academic scrutiny, and seems to minimise the reality of racism, greed and racist greed. Margaret Kwateng puts it succinctly in her 2014 paper on race and sickle cell disease: “studies today that try and attribute disparities between the races to genetic differences may be similarly searching for a way to explain inequity in a way that does not selfimplicate”.

A well-written book with some interesting and some challenging ideas by an author whose interests are fundamentally different to mine.

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Impeccable Petunia

Novellas about the life and times of an artistic chicken

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Big thank you to my colleague Kez for these fantastic photos

“Impeccable Petunia Part I: Claws, Paws, Feathers and Jaws” and “Impeccable Petunia Part II: The Two Tails” by Katie Christine and illustrated by Jonathan Edward are two parts in a series about a young backyard chicken called Petunia. Low on the pecking order which is determined by breed, size and ferocity, Petunia instead spends her time tending to a little corner of the yard. When her talents for colour and arrangement are spotted by the woman who lives in the house, Petunia is privileged to be invited inside to oversee the interior decorating. However, while Petunia is busy with her new vocation, the politics of the hen house are soon overshadowed by a much more deadly threat.

These two books are quirky tales told in the style of animal stories. Christine is a descriptive writer who shines a new perspective on the everyday detail of an average backyard. I enjoyed the chicken politics the most and I very much enjoyed the enigmatic cat Macy, whose character is developed further in the second book. The second, longer, book goes off campus and Petunia experiences more adventures in a dangerous, urban setting.

One of the things I struggled with a bit about this book was the pacing. I think occasionally Christine got caught up in the detail of the physical environment at the expense of what was happening in the plot, and occasionally it was a bit hard to follow what was going on.

An original story that makes you think that those ladies in your backyard may have more complex lives than you ever imagined.

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Children of Blood and Bone

West African-inspired young adult fantasy

Our feminist fantasy book club has been cranking through the books this year. We picked our list by nominating two books each and drawing them from a hat, and this was my first book of the year. I’m always on the lookout for diverse books to read, and fantasy is a notoriously homogeneous genre. I had come across this book in a list, and it has since caused a bit of a stir winning a Hugo and being turned into a film, so I decided to nominate it.

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“Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi is a young adult fantasy novel about a land called Orïsha where people are either born as maji or kosidán. Once, all maji wielded magic, but since the kosidán king Saran took the magic away and killed all the maji, the powerless maji children, distinguishable by their white hair and known as diviners, have been subjugated by the kosidán. Zélie, a diviner who lost her mother in the raids, tries to keep her head down and help her father and brother eke out a living. However, when her path crosses with kosidán princess Amari on the run, Zélie’s humble life is lost forever.

My attempt at some West African inspired cooking for our book club

This is a spirited novel that takes the hallmarks of the young adult fantasy genre and recasts them against a backdrop of West African culture. This is a very readable book, and Adeyemi writes from the heart and her strength (and focus) is emotions and relationships. There are three point of view characters, but by far the most compelling are Zélie and Inan, Amari’s older brother and the crown prince. Without giving too much away, there was an element of magic that I really enjoyed – the ability to conjure a dreamscape and people you know inside (although there were some elements of magic that I found really disturbing). I was also really on board with everyone riding giant lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs everywhere.

As readable as this book is, it definitely had plenty of fantasy and young adult tropes. Lost parents, hidden powers, runaways, royalty. These themes are common throughout lots of fantasy novels, and aren’t fatal to a good story. I absolutely believe that fantasy and science fiction needs more authors of colour, and I understand the statement the author was making about the subjugation of a class of people (with darker skin colour) by another. However, I think that for a novel to use tropes and still be good, it needs to have something extra and I’m just not quite sure this book has that extra factor. I’m also not quite sure that there was the correct number of point of view characters. I think that maybe it should have been two or four, because three just seems a little off-kilter.

An easy read with some ambitious world-building and some interesting magic, I’ll be curious to see how it is adapted on screen.

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